Old Times Dar Am Not Forgotten


Last week I had a surreal moment when I was talking to a Romanian here in town and it turns out we have an acquaintance in common, a woman we both met 12 years ago.

Twelve years! Wow, where has the time gone? Talking about those “long ago” days of 1999 got me to thinking about how much has changed. And while my normal policy is to avoid excessive sentimentality, I also believe it’s important to document the mundane because it is so illustrative in a historical sense.

Therefore I beg your indulgence as I strum my metaphorical banjo and sing of that which is no longer.

I remember when…

  • All of the taxis were rattling, claptrap Dacia 1310‘s…
  • For that matter, all the ambulances were also Dacia 1310’s…
  • There were no modern shopping malls whatsoever and the Unirea center in Bucharest was king…
  • Inflation was a huge problem and the lei shifted against the dollar in giant leaps so all “extra” currency had to be converted to dollars or deutschmarks and kept at home until it was needed…
  • Germany had marks, France used francs, Italians used lire, and the euro was just a fancy idea yet to be implemented. And the foreign currency of choice in Romania was the American dollar…
  • McDonald’s was the only multinational chain restaurant in town…
  • There were a total of three ATMs/cash points (bancomate) in the entire city…
  • Cluj’s historic Hotel Continental was open for business…
  • The coolest bank note ever made was in circulation, the gorgeous 2000 lei note, complete with a specially tinted window for observing the solar eclipse…
  • The funky 5000 lei coin was in circulation. Is it round? Is it octagonal? Nobody knows…
  • Clouds of choking dust would blow through town in the summer…
  • There were no hypermarkets and you bought all your food at the piata or else a small corner store…
  • Nobody owned a washing machine and so the bathroom was always crowded with clothes in a bucket and strung up on wires to dry over the tub…
  • Most houses were heated with a ceramic soba, sometimes wood-fired…
  • There was about one electrical outlet (priza) per room and so you constantly had to unplug other things when you wanted to use something…
  • Sending your children abroad to work, especially to the United States, was a pioneering and adventuresome undertaking…
  • Vama Veche was singing Hai Sa Emigram
  • Plastic dishes for storing leftover food were non-existent so everyone recycled old butter containers and jars for that purpose…
  • All of the piete (food markets) were outdoors…
  • Nobody had individually-controlled heat for their apartment so you had to rely on the bloc’s furnace and often it was running at full blast during the winter, producing sweltering hot conditions…
  • The electricity would often go out several days a week for no discernible reason…
  • Sometimes there was hot water and sometimes not…
  • The PSD was known as PDSR…
  • Every bench, every concrete post and every square meter of public property in Cluj-Napoca was painted red, yellow and blue by the lunatic mayor. Also, there were about ten thousand Romanian flags hanging from every possible building and overhang…
  • Not one building or home was air-conditioned…
  • More people had visited the Soviet Union than western Europe…
  • People went to Hungary to buy food because the prices there were so much better…
  • You couldn’t find M&M’s, Snickers, Mars, Bounty, Skittles or other western candy in the stores…
  • Horses and wagons were commonplace both in town as well as on the roads between cities…
  • You had to wait until your bloc was “cablat” (wired) before you could get internet at home. And it was an expensive and extravagant luxury…
  • Nobody had ever tasted or eaten bacon…
  • The Romanian language wasn’t infested with ten thousand quasi-English words…
  • All the televisions had a little statue of a fish on top of them…
  • Everyone had at least one technological gadget at home that was made in East Germany…
  • Only people who spoke Romanian had heard of O-Zone
  • Teo Peter was still alive and making music…
  • The only way to get good chocolate was to wait for your aunt, who had defected to West Germany years ago, to send it to you…
  • There were no credit cards…
  • The largest bill in circulation was the 500,000 lei note (roughly $20), which meant that you had to load up a shopping bag full of money to buy something expensive like a car…
  • The real estate market was as tight as a drum and so it was common for six people to sleep in a single room…
  • Old ladies sat outside public bathrooms and “charged” for toilet paper and lived from their meager tips…
  • Gypsy kids would enter every single restaurant and beg for money…
  • The bill at a restaurant was always handwritten…
  • Many items on the menu were not available and the waitress would always snatch it away from you after you ordered…
  • Most second-hand or cheap clothes were made in Turkey, not China…
  • It was almost impossible to get fresh fruit or vegetables in the winter…
  • Every ride on CFR was a crazy adventure
  • CFR ticket prices were heavily subsidized and traveling from Bucharest to Cluj (about 400km) cost about $8 USD…
  • A lot of business was conducted by people setting up impromptu “stands” on the sidewalk or anywhere they could find a meter of free space…
  • You could pay a guy a small fee and his (real, living) bird would pick a card with a “lucky number” on it for you to play the lottery…
  • “Lacto-Ovo” cafeterias still existed…
  • One of the “cool” things to do was pay to put your picture on a bottle of wine or champagne…
  • No stores ever gave you or even sold you a bag. You had to bring your own with you everywhere you went…
  • One of the “cool” things to do was carry your daily purchases in a brand-name shopping bag…
  • Many fairly large towns had no restaurants at all…
  • Half the university student population hitch-hiked to get back to their home town…
  • Buying an appliance in the store with (in store) credit was a strange and exhilarating new thing to do…
  • There were stray dogs running around Otopeni Airport and rusty old planes left abandoned on the tarmac…
  • All sodas and Coca-Colas were sold in glass bottles. And you darn sure couldn’t take them out of the restaurant…
  • All beer and water was likewise sold in glass bottles, which you paid a deposit on and were reimbursed when you returned them to the store…
  • Everyone in the piata used manual scales with ancient, corroded weights…
  • One of the “cool” things to do if you owned a car was to walk around with the fob hanging out of your front pocket so people knew you had a car…
  • One of the “cool” things to do was wear your mobile phone on a cord around your neck…
  • Almost nobody had cable television and so about 90% of the population tuned into PRO TV for their news and then the nightly movie at 8pm…
  • A lot of very busy city streets were still cobblestone…
  • Any existing elevators were ancient, incredibly cramped devices…
  • Most blocuri didn’t have interfoane and so a constant stream of gypsies, peddlers and other people would ring your doorbell…
  • There were people walking around downtown selling enormous, hairy blankets…
  • Ice skating, roller skating, bowling and billiards places were non-existent…
  • A restaurant selling Chinese food was an exciting novelty…
  • Anything and everything could and was delivered to your home by taxis…
  • The lei had a lot more zeroes and so everyone was a “millionaire”…
  • Every kid in school got a bread roll and some milk (cornul si laptele)…
  • The hottest song in the club was The Bad Touch
  • The second hottest song in the club was Te Plac by Trei Rei Sudest…
  • The greatest female pop band was ASIA
  • The number one rap group in Romania was BUG Mafia, who were getting arrested for the use of profanity in public…
  • About the only other rap group was La Familia
  • Every Romanian was bursting with pride about Leonard Doroftei
  • The song Fac Ce Vreu by “Andre” was a daring display of feminist independence…
  • The king of manele was Adrian Copilu Minune
  • The first wave of etno music set to a modern pop beat was just beginning…
  • Everyone listened to “Radio Contact”, advertised everywhere by their ubiquitous dolphin billboards…
  • Joining NATO and the European Union was still a far away dream…
  • And last but not least, Hi-Q promised us all that TOTUL VA FI BINE!

*sigh* sometimes I really do feel old… but what an amazing, strange journey it’s been! :)